Well-Known Psychologists Throughout History

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 9, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many famous psychologists throughout history have changed the world's understanding of mental health and formed the basis of current psychological practice. Although psychologists are still studying, testing, and learning to improve their knowledge, their inspiration often comes from theories and therapeutic modalities developed centuries ago. Learning more about these famous psychologists from the past can allow you to learn more about how psychology works today. Below is a list of some of the most influential psychologists of the past two centuries and their contributions to our understanding of human psychology. 

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"Pre-psychologists" and philosophers 

The early seeds of Western psychology took root in Greece in the fourth and fifth centuries BCE. During this time, philosophers began to posit that humans determined their actions rather than the gods or another supernatural force. Before this, the idea of pre-destiny, a belief many people subscribed to at the time, meant many people weren't interested in discussing the reasons behind behaviors. 

During the birth of psychology, as it is known in modern society, many people believed that gods influenced human actions but that each individual ultimately chose their own path. These beliefs allowed ancient thinkers to ask questions about why we make decisions and what types of decisions we should make.

Philosophers and early ethicists asked questions about human nature—why we do what we do. Aristotle is often recognized as one of the first to dive into questions outside the existing natural sciences like physics and basic biology. However, his teachers, Plato and Socrates, were already asking questions like these.

In the 17th century CE, the French philosopher René Descartes created the idea of "dualism," which held that the mind and body were composed of different substances and worked together to formulate the perception of experience. 

The theories and work from early philosophers had significant implications for psychology. They contributed to the idea that those with symptoms of what are now known to be mental illnesses were experiencing a physiological imbalance. The result was an intense stigma against mental health disorders and the imprisonment of those whose symptoms were difficult to manage. Later in his life, Pinel would see the beginnings of modern psychology as a branch of the natural sciences.

Famous psychologists throughout history
Many of the first famous psychologists, from those considered to be the father of modern psychology to those who contributed behind the scenes, played a role in developing popular psychological theories and practices that are used today.

Marmaduke Sampson and the natural scientists 

In the nineteenth century, a focus on the "natural sciences" sought to break up complex or abstract ideas and tie them to more manageable or malleable physical artifacts. This idea impacted many sciences and created the forerunner of modern psychology, known as "phrenology." 

Phrenologists like Marmaduke Sampson held that they could make predictions about a person's mental health and attitudes by studying the shape of their head. It was the beginning of the study of neuropsychology. However, the practice had roots in racism and is now considered pseudoscience. 

Wilhelm Wundt and experimental psychology

Wilhelm Wundt was a German physiologist living shortly after Sampson. Wundt was also interested in applying the methods of the day to the problem of emotional and mental wellness. This helped establish psychology as a scientific field. Instead of the natural sciences approach, he used the scientific method, paving the way for many famous psychologists after him.

His more cautious and deliberate approach to studying mental health and wellness—referred to as experimental psychology—led him to make less inflammatory claims than other scientists of the day. Wundt founded the schools of structuralism and introspection, which are still commonly used today. He also established the first psychological research laboratory. 

William James and educational psychology

Shortly after Wundt's time, William James developed a new approach. James was an American who taught the first psychology classes in history and is sometimes called "the father of American psychology." James’ work also led to the development of the field of evolutionary psychology. His classes taught that the human mind was an evolutionary device that allowed us to exist and thrive as a species and that its three main functions were thinking, feeling, and remembering. James influenced many eminent psychologists and philosophers, including John Dewey and Edwin Holt. 

The German Gestalt psychologists

Two years after the death of James in 1910, the school of Gestalt Psychology took off in Germany. Meant to help people rather than study them, the Gestalt school was founded by famous psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler.

The idea for the school was based on the premise that an individual's perception of an event is more complicated than the event itself. Gestalt psychology encourages individuals to focus on their feelings about a topic and why they might be feeling that way while grounding themselves in the facts of what they perceived. It would become an essential forerunner of later psychoanalytic techniques.

Freud, Rorschach, and Jung: The early psychoanalysts

The psychoanalytic technique would be pioneered by Sigmund Freud and his student Carl Jung, two of the most famous psychologists, in the coming decades. Freud famously suggested that humans' actions and attitudes result from the unconscious mind – thoughts and feelings that they are unable or unwilling to confront directly. 

The subconscious, according to Freud, was primarily formed because of experiences and relationships from childhood. It could be best understood through dreams or "free association," the practice of hearing a word, saying the first word that came to mind, and then attempting to discern how your mind connected or related the two words.

The idea of free association was further pioneered by Freud's contemporary, Hermann Rorschach of Switzerland. Rorschach's famous inkblot tests worked like Freud's word association but relied on inkblots to understand subconscious thought instead of words. 

Carl Jung studied under Freud and agreed that more was happening in the subconscious than in the conscious mind. His methods of interacting with and understanding the subconscious mind differed from Freud's. He suggested that dreams could serve to study the subconscious and could be interpreted with a standard dictionary of symbols. His theories, which he called analytical psychology, helped form the basis of psychodynamic therapy. 

John Watson and the behaviorists

While people like Freud, Rorschach, Jung, and Maslow were making considerable strides in psychology by recording and attempting to understand unseen processes of the mind, another school of psychology called "behaviorism" was developed to deal exclusively with what could be physically observed. Behaviorists often discounted subjective ideas like perception and dream interpretation.

One significant behaviorist is John Watson, who was primarily inspired by the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov, whose ideas reached the western world at the beginning of the 20th century. Some of Watson's most significant contributions involved learning about the physical changes of the brain during development. 

Another influential behaviorist was the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner studied reinforcement in learning, believing it was most efficient when lessons were rewarded. His discoveries offered insight into how the mind handles tasks, demands, and rewards.

Jean Piaget, child development, and cognitive psychology

While behaviorists focused on how learning influences behavior, another branch of psychology called cognitive psychology was devoting itself to the same ideas. Cognitive psychology focuses on how our thoughts influence our behavior. 

One of the founders, Jean Piaget, was roughly contemporary with Skinner. Piaget studied under Jung briefly and conducted a study of errors in which he tried to determine the reason behind common mistakes. He also contributed to the field of developmental psychology, studying the process by which people comprehend significant ideas by starting with minor concepts and compounding them. Piaget developed an early theory of child development, positing that cognitive development occurs over the course of four stages. 

People like Piaget and Skinner were famous in the late twentieth century, within the living memory of many living individuals. Piaget’s theory of human development influenced many notable psychologists of the 20th century, including Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg built on Piaget’s research when creating his stages of moral development.  

There are still great strides in psychology today, and thousands of psychologists have significantly contributed to the field. 

Other noteworthy and influential people from the 20th century include:

  • Albert Bandura, who contributed to the development of social learning theory
  • Anna Freud created psychoanalytic child psychology
  • Carol Gilligan, who identified differences in moral reasoning between men and women
  • Kurt Lewin contributed to Gestalt psychology and human behavior theories—and is considered the father of social psychology
  • Gordon Allport, who is considered the father of personality psychology
  • John Bowlby, who developed attachment theory
  • Stanley Hall, who focused on child and educational psychology
  • Albert Ellis, who created rational emotive behavior therapy and helped precipitate the cognitive revolutionary paradigm shift, leading to the development of cognitive behavioral therapies
  • Stanley Milgram, who proved that people will act in ways that are incompatible with their values if given instruction by an authority figure
  • Daniel Kahneman, who developed the theory of hedonic psychology 
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Modern counseling options 

In modern psychology, much discussion around psychology connects to mental illness. As awareness of many mental health conditions has increased, so has the demand for mental healthcare that works, is available, and understands the client's needs. For this reason, many clients now attend therapy online instead of in person.  

In addition to being generally affordable and available, online therapy is effective. Studies have demonstrated that it's as successful as in-person therapy at lessening symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. By working with an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can meet with modern psychologists working to bring past and present theories to life through therapeutic services. 

In addition, when you work with a provider online, you can personalize your experience by choosing between phone, video, or live chat sessions. Many online therapy platforms are more affordable and offer resources like worksheets, webinars, and messaging to help clients achieve as many therapeutic goals as possible in a safe and comfortable setting. 


Thousands of famous psychologists have paved the way for modern psychology. Still, a few are often mentioned above the rest due to their significant contributions to developing theories used today. In modern society, therapists and psychologists are in abundance. Anyone can see a therapist, and over 41.7 million American adults are currently in therapy. If you'd like to learn more about how the field of psychology has grown, consider reaching out to a counselor. 

As psychology and our understanding of the human mind continue to change, it’s likely that the way we take care of ourselves will, too. The support and care of an online therapist is likely just the beginning.

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